Originally written by Patrick Rennick.
One of metal’s greatest strengths as a stalwart sonic form is the enduring musical backbone laid down by its original innovators. Within the major metal genres,characteristic musical elements exist. For example, music of the doom persuasion is played at a much slower tempo often with a grim dose of weltschmerz. Power metal uses a more upbeat palette of melody in comparison to death metal, although both are capable of stellar playing speeds and technicality. Because of characteristics such as these, the listener is able to categorize a release, or at least isolate and label certain elements. This labeling allows the listener to build a personal set of listening preferences. However, as certain genres become prominent and accepted, saturation inevitably arises in the form of an endless onslaught of bands that seem to be playing the same songs. The cure for this disease of stagnation is musical innovation. Combining genres is one path to this. New playing styles are bound to emerge from fusions; some fruitful, others destined to become novelty.
The genre of black metal has become an unexpected breeding ground for genre chimeras in the last several years. This once harshly conservative style has not only taken part in the successful fusions of black/death and black/thrash, but has also drawn from non-metal musical styles such as folk, ambient, industrial, and progressive rock. One of the most peculiar fusions yet has been orchestrated by France’s Alcest. As absurd as it sounds on paper, they have somehow joined the raw fury of black metal with the oftentimes angst-ridden musical waves of shoegaze. Or at least that’s what the critics thought, claims Neige, the group’s founder.
“The first time I saw the word “shoegaze” it was while I was reading an Alcest review that compared me to this style of music,” he says. “Shoegaze was never an influence for me since I discovered it just after having recorded my album, Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde. I don’t see too many similarities between Alcest and shoegaze bands. Alcest is epic melancholic/otherworldly music, and shoegaze is a noisier version of pop with distant vocals. It’s teenage music. The few influences I have are from black metal and darkwave. However, since I discovered it, shoegaze has become one of my favorite musical styles. I listen to it a lot!”
The shoegaze movement was spearheaded by the Irish group My Bloody Valentine. Their swansong and widely regarded masterwork is Loveless, released in 1991. The style they perfected on this album is characterized by a suffocating layering of instrumentation that could be likened to Strapping Young Ladin its density, although on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. During live performances, MBV was known to focus all of their attention on manipulating a variety of floor pedals, often staring down at their shoes for lengthy periods of time thus earning the genre its name. Neige mentions several other shoegaze bands he has come to appreciate, a collection of British artists including Slowdive, Ride, Pale Saints, and the song “Black Metallic” by Catherine Wheel. He also mentions one particular band that may surprise some.
“The Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream,” he says. “This is not really shoegaze, but it has something to do with it in my opinion. I have known this album for a long time and it had a certain influence on me. It is one of my all-time favorite records.”
If you find yourself wondering how Neige is linked to black metal, he has been active in the French scene as a multi-instrumentalist for roughly 10 years handling various instruments in the past for Peste Noire, among other projects. He currently plays in Lantlôs, a post-black metal group.
“Iron Maidenartworks helped me to discover hard rock and metal,” he recalls. “As for black metal, I discovered it thanks to a metal magazine. I was something like 13 or 14 years old and I heard Cradle of Filth’s Cruelty and the Beast. It was the first black metal record I ever heard, even if this is not really black metal. Then I discovered Darkthrone, Emperor, Burzum, Satyricon, etc. I feel a big nostalgia for this time. The first years you listen to black metal are the best ones.”
In his youth, Neige was also experiencing very vivid dreams; ones that left such an impression on him he decided to begin using them as the main musical and lyrical inspiration for Alcest.
“Since 2005, with Le Secret, my music is a sound inspired by visions I had as a child about a far away dimension,” he says. “I tend to describe them and the music is my interpretation of them. My music is not ethereal because I decided to add some shoegaze elements to my metal sound, but because I wanted to reproduce in the most faithful way the celestial melodies and faerical chants I used to hear during these experiences. I want to be clear, we are not speaking about imagination or fantasy, but about a real event which I had and will always have a big impact on my life.
“In my early years I used to have sudden visions, memories of a place that is not the one we know. The things that came to my mind came with the precision and the evidence of any real memory. These were images of an indescribably beautiful haven where everything, trees, glades, and streams produce a pearly light and where a faraway and celestial music floats in the air like a perfume. In such a place the spirit wanders without its mortal coil, deprived of the five senses pertaining to the body. The spirit perceives what surrounds it in a completely different way. There, one no longer feels moral and physical suffering, the weight of time, diseases, the anguish of death, only a feeling of peace and indescribable ecstasy. This heavenly place is inhabited by beings of light who are infinitely benevolent, protective, and who communicate by talking directly to the soul, in a language beyond words.
“I do believe in the immortality of the human soul and in life after death, here or somewhere else. If I didn’t have these visions I would certainly not believe in this, but now I can’t have a single doubt about it. And despite some of life’s dramas such as illness, death, and suffering though unfair events that can happen suddenly, I am seeing a sense in existence, a goal that every soul should try to reach. A terrestrial life as I see it could be comparable to an exercise we repeat again and again in order to always learn more, to improve, to evolve, and to raise our spirit in order to reach another state of existence at the end.”
Given his explanation, the music of Alcest comes into context. Warm pulsating guitar riffs and soft melancholy vocals accentuate his latest release, Écailles de lune. When tremolo riffs, speedy drumming, and snarls merge with these aforementioned elements the result is surprisingly smooth and complementary. Somehow Neige has managed to channel black metal’s furious energy to heighten the positive energy of his visions.
“Distortion and blasting drums, black metal or violence, they don’t necessarily mean darkness to me but intensity and dynamics. The only reason I am using distortion and tremolo riffs is to give strength and power to the melodies, to push the emotion thanks to the distortion’s noise. Alcest’s music can be dark in very rare moments but never negative…
“I just try to produce the most otherworldly music I can, with a lot of strong emotions within, like a chant from another dimension. As for composing I don’t use any particular process, I play guitar and let the riffing go until I find something interesting, just like any guitarist I guess. However the best things are always the ones I find when I am in a specific state of mind, like when I am connected to this other world I mentioned before.”
To prevent the compromise of his personal vision, Neige solely handles the compositions within Alcest, relying sparingly on session musicians. Naturally, he also pens all of the lyrics. He is kind enough to share some themes from his latest album Écailles de lune for those who are unable to interpret French.
“Lyrics for Écailles de lune are just like all Alcest lyrics,” he says.” They are very intimate. While Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde was a description of memories I had as a child about the luminous far away dimension, Écailles de lune could be seen as a metaphor of how I manage to live with this experience now in my everyday life. You know I can become very confused due to the fact I constantly feel lost and I feel as if I do not to belong to this place. I am alone with these visions. Sometimes I have the sensation a non-human part of my soul is screaming inside me, urging me to go back into the world he belongs to. This explains the melancholy lyrical theme of Écailles de lune. It’s a story about a man sitting in front of the sea at night and thinking about his life and how he can’t find any interest anymore in his earthly existence, nothing and nobody that could give him joy. He falls in love with the night, being captivated by the voices of the waves and the spirits of the sea. He goes swimming in the depth, surrounded by aquatic guardian spirits and finds finally a serene sleep in the bottoms of the sea, never coming back to the real world. This story is not really a metaphor of death, like it would seem to be. It’s like a passage to another reality, another state of existence… The lyrics of Écailles de lune serve as an echo for people who feel they don’t belong to the Earth. Alcest is the non-human glimmer of the soul certain people hold within.”
A few months back in April, Neige began his first North American tour with Alcest. He recalls fond memories and some disappointments.
“The overall tour experience in the U.S. was great,” he begins. “You know we were so happy to do this tour because we had a lot of difficulties obtaining visas, and when we finally got them just one week before going, we learned that planes couldn’t fly due to an Icelandic volcano. We were so pissed off! Fortunately the day we were supposed to go things got better and we could take the plane. If this was one day before it wouldn’t have been possible, so we were very lucky. As for the tour itself, everything was all right except for the fact that I lost my voice for the last two dates. This was a really hard and depressive situation for me, frustrating but I couldn’t do anything against it, just to let the time pass and wait for my voice to come back. We will come again to New York and Montreal and this will be a real Alcest show, the one the audience deserved… The typical audience reaction I saw was them concentrated on the music, often smiling or closing their eyes, I really appreciate that.”